VOL. 113 | NO. 102 | Friday, May 21, 1999
By STACEY PETSCHAUER
Breaking down barriers
A new program seeks to improve
community relations by promoting the building trades
By STACEY PETSCHAUER
The Daily News
Building with bricks and mortar is the usual business of the Memphis Building & Construction Trades Council, but these days, the organization and its 17 local affiliates are trying a different means of construction to build relationships and community ties.
Theyre also trying out methods of demolition that dont require wrecking balls and explosives, but rather education and communication the keys to bringing down racial barriers.
The organizations new program, Building Racial Harmony thru Labor Justice, is an attempt to reach into underserved neighborhoods to let citizens know about jobs available in the building trades.
"We are making an effort to ensure that every household in Memphis and Shelby County is aware of the 17 apprentice programs offered through the Memphis Building & Construction Trades Council," said Mae Coleman, spokesperson for the program.
"Theyve implemented this program for the purpose of informing minorities in the community of the awesome career opportunities in the building and construction trades. For many, many years, minorities were excluded from this industry."
The program also is designed to make citizens aware that good jobs with good benefits are available to people without college degrees, Coleman said.
"Only a small percentage of (high school) graduates will attend college," she said. "Well, if they dont attend a four-year college, whats out there for them? And what about adults who dont have college degrees and dont have adequate jobs, who are making minimum wage and trying to raise a family?
"You cant do it. Its virtually impossible on some of the wages that are paid here in Memphis."
The program is designed to present an alternative to those people seeking more solid employment, Coleman said.
"These jobs provide health care, a pension and also afford you the opportunity to, when you acquire a skill in the building and construction trades industry, go out there and open up your own business.
"You can become an entrepreneur and then, in turn, hire others to work in your company, thereby generating economic growth for the city of Memphis and Shelby County," she said.
Each of the organizations affiliated with the Trades Council, which includes groups such as the iron workers, bricklayers, engineers and carpenters, offer apprenticeship programs that lead men and women into the various building and construction industries.
"All the different building trades have these apprenticeship programs, and thats how we develop our journeymen," said Gil Mills of Steam Fitters 614.
"They go into an apprenticeship school. Their wages start out 40 to 50 percent of what a journeymans are. Their schools last anywhere from two to five years, depending on the technology involved in the trade."
Generally, the higher the technology, the longer the term of the school and the more money journeymen will make upon completion of the apprentice program, Mills said.
Wages vary within the programs, but in the steam fitters program, which offers a five-year apprenticeship program, apprentices begin at about $10.65 an hour, including health insurance and pension. Journeymen pipe fitters currently are paid $20.81 an hour, plus about $6 in benefits, he said.
"Were trying to make a big adjustment and move (apprentice pay) upward, because we see a great shortfall of young applicants coming in that want to get into this kind of work.
"Its kind of hot, its kind of hard, its kind of dirty, its kind of heavy. Sometimes its cold. But, its a great career, and if people apply themselves, once you learn a craft like a pipe fitter or a plumber or an electrician or an iron worker or a carpenter, there are jobs like this for people that are good at it all over the world. You never have to worry about it," Mills said.
He said apprenticeship classes, which vary among the different trades, run in his organization about four nights a week and one Saturday a month. Students attend classes for free, work on the job and receive pay and benefits during their schooling.
"Students dont have to come out here and write a check the first semester for so much money. They dont have to go buy their books. All theyve got to do is go to work every day, satisfy that contractor and the men theyre working for and come to school when they have to."
Along with just getting the word out about the building trades in the general community, the Trades Council also is working on a program to take first offenders in both adult and juvenile justice programs and train them in a trade.
The program for first offenders over 18 is called First Offenders Second Chance. Pre-Trial Services is one local organization that has signed on to help the Council with the program.
"Were looking at referring clients that are placed on misdemeanor probation to their organization to help them develop skills," said Janice Mosley, deputy administrator for Pre-Trial Services.
"A lot of our clients do not have job skills, and unemployment is a concern with a large number of people placed on probation. So, they would go and learn these trades and help to better their position in society.
"We see it as a benefit for the individuals that are placed on probation, trying to really develop skills. We also see it as a benefit as a whole for society. You have someone with some skills that can go out into society and obtain higher-paying jobs and be a better, productive citizen."
Offenders who will be involved in the program will receive information about all 17 trades affiliated with the Trades Council while they are still incarcerated. When the offenders are released, part of their release criteria will be to enroll in one of the apprentice programs, Coleman said.
The program for juvenile offenders will work in much the same way. The Trades Council already has partnered with several organizations, including Youth Villages and Juvenile Court, for help with the program.
An important goal of the program is to reduce crime in the community, Coleman said.
"When people are unemployed, they see an easy way to get what they dont have is to take it from somebody else. But, when people are gainfully employed, they can go into a department store and buy anything they want to buy. They can go into a grocery store and buy anything they want to buy. They dont have to have handouts from the government.
"Were saying, You dont need welfare. You didnt need it in the first place. Here is an alternative."
A variety of community organizations have signed on to become involved with the effort.
Lisa Price, assistant to the director for the Neighborhood Watch program, which is affiliated with more than 1,600 neighborhood associations in the area, said the organization was quick to jump on board with the program because of its potential to help fight crime.
"I thought it would be a good idea if we would join forces to help distribute information (about the program) into the community, because I happen to feel that if you are giving people a mode of economic development then you can possibly keep them from the negative elements of crime," Price said.
Neighborhood Watch has, therefore, agreed to distribute brochures and other information to neighborhood associations all over the county.
"Were basically a mouthpiece," Price said, adding that she feels the program will have positive effects on individuals in the community.
"I know some people in the community that, if they had been given an opportunity like this, maybe they wouldnt have turned out the way they did, going down the wrong streets," she said.
Mills said people need to be aware of alternatives every bit as beneficial as a college education that will keep them on a track.
"This is something that nobody can ever take away from me," he said. "Ive got a skill. Ive got a trade. I know how to do what I do and I do it well. Ive got a college degree and they cant take that away from me either, but, of the two, I get a lot more use out of this."